A voice crackles from the tinny speaker in the kitchen, and the staff at El Pollo Imperial listens closely to someone in a minivan at the drive-through window placing an order — not for pallid hamburgers stacked two patties high or limp fish encased in sheaths of greasy batter, but for stunningly fresh ceviche and impeccable lomo saltado, the Peruvian dish of stir-fried beef and French fries.
El Pollo Imperial inherited its fast-food trappings. Six months ago, partners Oscar Ramirez and Carlos and Alicia Cortez repurposed a shuttered KFC in North Long Beach, adapting even the drive-through to the restaurant's new Peruvian flavors. It's a significant transformation for this stretch of Atlantic Avenue, a neighborhood where ship supply companies occupy former Chinese restaurants and a striking Art Deco theater awaits demolition.
There are playful nods to El Pollo Imperial's Kentucky Fried past: its avian name, its feathered mascot outfitted like Incan royalty. But the restaurant isn't a mere paean to poultry. Though you certainly will order pollo a la brasa on your initial visit — juicy, well-seasoned rotisserie chicken that demands to be eaten with your hands — the impressive breadth of the restaurant's menu will compel you to try any of the dozens of other dishes.
Here, even the most determined meat-seekers dream of the sea. Sometimes it's the tiny-tentacled baby octopus strewn through the saltado de mariscos, a catchall stir-fry of shrimp, squid, fish, onion, tomato and French fries. Blustery days bring visions of the parihuela. The seafood stew is a vivid broth fortified with white wine, tomato and an undercurrent of clam juice, flush with mussels, clams, squid and octopus. A whole shrimp sits on the surface, its wiry antennae curling beyond the bowl.
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The festival de mariscos is a surfeit of oceanic pleasures: four separate seafood dishes united in one imposing spectacle, each relegated to its own quadrant of a massive, compartmentalized plate. Start with the first-rate ceviche mixto, fish, shrimp, squid and a couple of mussels marinated in lime juice, showered with diced red onion and dabbed with smoldering salsa. Then there's the glorious heap of fried squid, octopus and potatoes, enough to sustain more than a few starved New Englanders. A lightly breaded fish fillet bathes in thick, garlicky gravy, and saffron-stained seafood rice mimics a pared-down paella. The festival elicits almost universal awe, regulars instantly rethinking their routine and others eyeing what's bound to be their next lunch.
But El Pollo Imperial is just as skilled on land. The seco de cordero — cubes of herb-laced lamb stewed until they collapse into ethereal threads — proves it. So does the tacu-tacu montado, a hash-like mass of beans and rice formed into a loose patty and joined by a steak so thin it seems sliced from fantasy. A fried egg is perched on top of the steak; a pair of sweet plantains flanks the plate.
Later, a chime echoes through the kitchen — it's the drive-through again. Carlos Cortez deciphers another order through the sibilant speaker.
El Pollo Imperial's entire menu — supremely delicate fish and rugged steaks alike — is available from the drive-through. Because the restaurant prepares everything to order, Cortez explains, dishes of particular precision require a few extra minutes. But everything can be ready upon arrival with a call ahead.
That includes desserts too, maybe a box of alfajores, buttery cookies sandwiched around a rich layer of dulce de leche, or a scorching hot order of picarones, crisp pumpkin fritters lacquered with sticky, cinnamon- and anise-steeped syrup.
EL POLLO IMPERIAL
LOCATION: 5991 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach; (562) 612-3315; elpolloimperial.com.
PRICE: Appetizers, $2.50 to $10; weekday lunch specials, $6 to $6.50; pollo a la brasa, $4.80 to $11.50; beef, chicken and lamb entrees, $7 to $9.50; seafood entrees, $8.50 to $20; sides, drinks and desserts, $1.50 to $3.50.
DETAILS: Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Full drive-through service. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.